Roundup of commentary and analysis on the O’Brien case

In an letter to Wild from the president of the American Sociological Association, Evelyn Nakano Glenn said “Marquette University appears to have violated its own non-discrimination policy as well as the principles of free inquiry that govern all great universities” :

Dear President Wild and Provost Pauly:

As President of the American Sociological Association (ASA), I am profoundly concerned about your decision to rescind your offer to sociologist Dr. Jodi O’Brien to become Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University. The ASA is the national scholarly society for American sociologists with a national and international membership of over 14,000 most of whom are employed in the academy. The ASA has a long-standing record of rejecting any policies or actions in the academy that disqualify candidates who are pursuing scholarly inquiry that is recognized as legitimate within their disciplines. The Code of Ethics of the American

Sociological Association and the explicit policies of our Association also reject any exclusion on the basis age; gender; race; ethnicity; national origin; religion; sexual orientation; disability; health conditions; marital, domestic, or parental status. We regard these standards to reflect the fundamental principles of academic freedom and the core mission of higher education in both scholarship and teaching.

We condemn the action of Marquette University’s senior officials in rescinding its offer to Dr. O’Brien. By doing so, Marquette University appears to have violated its own non-discrimination policy as well as the principles of free inquiry that govern all great universities.

As a scientific discipline, sociology seeks to develop theoretical and empirical understanding of complex social structures and social processes through research and scholarship. This often means that sociologists’ legitimate lines of inquiry take them into areas that can be fraught with cultural and social conflict. The scholarship of sociology, however, cannot abandon these areas; indeed, in its search to contribute to learning and social well-being, sociology explicitly promotes the vitality and diversity of research within our discipline. The ASA has 50 special interest sections as part of our organizational structure that reflect this diversity. From sections on Peace, War, and Social Conflict and the Sociology of Education, to a section-in-formation

on Altruism and Social Solidarity and the Section on the Sociology of Religion, to the long-standing Section on Sex and Gender and the Section on Sexualities, these intellectual communities reflect areas of active sociological scholarship. As the publisher of nine major scholarly journals in sociology, the ASA includes high-quality, peer-reviewed research in all these areas of scientific inquiry.

As a major institution of higher education, Marquette University should acknowledge the professional and personal harm it has done to Dr. O’Brien by rescinding its offer to her. Similarly, the university should recognize that, by its action, Marquette has broken the principles of academic freedom and professional collegiality and damaged the university’s own stature as an institution of higher education.

As President of the American Sociological Association, I request that Marquette University affirm its dedication to non-discrimination and principles of academic freedom by extending an invitation to Dr. Jodi O’Brien to be Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences that includes a

statement that the University desires her leadership. We are hopeful that Marquette may still have the privilege of having this outstanding sociologist within its community of scholars and leaders.

Sincerely yours,

Evelyn Nakano Glenn, PhD

President, American Sociological Association

Director, Center for Race and Gender, and

Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies

University of California, Berkeley

USA Today springboards from our case and wonders if there is a “stained class ceiling” at Catholic universities:

W. King Mott, associate professor of political science and gender studies at Seton Hall University, clearly has earned respect from colleagues at the Roman Catholic institution. He has tenure. He recently finished a term as chair of the Faculty Senate. He served on the search committee for a new president.But he’s quite certain he’ll never be an administrator. “There is no way the current hierarchy will allow a gay person to hold a position of authority unless they are closeted and self-loathing. They will never permit a scholar who publishes a point of view” promoting gay equity to hold a position of real authority, he said. Mott was demoted from associate dean back to the faculty ranks in 2005, the day after he wrote a letter to the editor of a New Jersey newspaper in which he questioned church leaders for criticizing gay men while “permitting and hiding pedophiles within the priesthood.” Mott is facing scrutiny once again — this time for a course he is planning on the history of the legal and political fights over marriage, in which he will discuss gay marriage and his views as a gay man in favor of it. Although the new course went through standard approvals, it is now being subject to an additional review by the Mission and Identity Committee of the university’s Board of Regents. That review was requested by the Rev. John J. Myers, archbishop of Newark, who denounced the course for seeking “to promote as legitimate a train of thought that is contrary to what the church teaches.”Catholic colleges are of course regularly the site of debates over the role of religious teachings in the context of American higher education. At commencement time, most notably last year at the University of Notre Dame, honorary degrees for or speeches by political leaders who support abortion rights are questioned by some church leaders. Valentine’s Day is an annual barrage of press releases and counter-releases about productions of “The Vagina Monologues” on Catholic campuses.

But amid those debates, the academic leaders of the institutions are frequently quick to point out that the faculties of their colleges include people of many faiths (or no faith) and many views on church teachings. The headlines over a Vagina Monologues production being forced off campus, they note, don’t reflect the reality of deep commitment to academic freedom in the classroom and in academic decisions. And that may explain why many professors and students at Marquette University have become so concerned and angry in the last week. The university rescinded an offer to the woman who was supposed to be its next dean of arts and sciences. The woman, Jodi O’Brien, is a sociologist at Seattle University who is a lesbian and whose scholarship has focused on sexuality and gender. O’Brien was very open about her sexual orientation and her scholarship with the search committee, which in turn was open with senior administrators at Marquette, who first offered her the job and then rescinded it.

The university maintains that she was found inappropriate for the position because of some of her writings, not for her sexual orientation. Either way, faculty leaders see a violation of academic freedom and of the principles of shared governance. 

The controversy over O’Brien’s rescinded appointment and Mott’s demotion five years ago (and controversy today over his planned course) have some faculty members fearful about a new glass ceiling at Catholic institutions. Gay scholars may win tenure and say what they wish, but they fear that they can’t rise too high. And if Catholic colleges are defined as places that limit those who are gay or who speak out about gay scholarship, the institutions risk being risked branded as intolerant, they say. 

G. Dennis O’Brien (no relation to Jodi O’Brien), author of The Idea of the Catholic University (University of Chicago Press) and former president of the University of Rochester and Bucknell University, said that the Marquette situation reminded him of an experience he had applying for a presidency he did not get at an institution that, like the two he led, was not Catholic. He heard from colleagues that the search committee was asking around about whether his Catholic faith made him biased and somehow unsuited for a presidency. “I thought it was an awfully stupid question to ask,” he said. “But anti-Catholicism has been for many years the anti-Semitism of the intellectual class.” 

Thinking about the Marquette situation, he said, he sees similarities. “Presumably you hire deans because they are expert academic managers. Your sexual orientation should not enter into your behavior as a dean. And if your scholarship is about lesbianism, there is nothing wrong with that. That’s a perfectly legitimate field,” he said. While the idea of a lesbian dean at a Catholic university may seem shocking to some, he said he never would have believed it possible — when he joined Princeton University‘s faculty in 1958 — that the institution would one day be led by a woman. 

Others, however, say that Catholic institutions shouldn’t be expected to act like all other colleges. “Catholic institutions choose to be Catholic — nobody forces them to be. In so choosing, they have a responsibility to the students and the faculty and to the church and one of those is to clearly communicate church teaching,” said Melanie M. Morey, co-author of Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (Oxford University Press) and a consultant at the Catholic Education Institute. “The secular model of higher education is the predominant one,” she said, “but the assumption that this is the only model is wrong.” 

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